New Emissary

3, 2, 1…Japanese Cinema

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New Emissary

3, 2, 1…Japanese Cinema

Now over 100 years old, Japan’s movie industry is a force to be reckoned with.

My mother may be one of Steve McQueen’s all-time greatest fans—and this is no overstatement. So devoted was she to the late great American movie star that in her late-20s, she quit her job as a high-school English teacher in her native Japan and moved to the West, to experience a life in a society and culture that was home to her idol. She would eventually go as far as to pen a semi-autobiographic novel, in Japanese, called ‘My Steve McQueen.’

So it’s not too surprising that my first experience of one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, Japan’s Akira Kurosawa, was as a child seeing an American movie inspired by one of his most famous films, The Magnificent Seven, based on Seven Samurai, in which Steve McQueen stars.

But despite such ironic beginnings, I’ve come to wholly acknowledge what many others around the world have as well—that Japanese cinema, in over a century since its inception, is a cultural force to be reckoned with. According to recent statistics, Japan currently remains the world’s third-largest film-producing country, behind India and the US. But it’s not its prolific nature that necessarily stands out. Rather, one of its most distinguishable characteristics is the influence it has had upon generations of film-makers, audiences, academics and enthusiasts around the world.

Kurosawa’s film is just one example amongst many. Whether straight-up remakes like The Magnificent Seven, or sparking entirely new genres—like the director’s Yojimbo series did with spaghetti westerns, or literally fueling a worldwide interest in animation with films like the 1998 Japanese blockbuster Akira, Japan’s films have for decades made a significant mark across oceans…and cultures.

So starting next week, we’ll feature our picks for the four most influential Japanese films of all time. This was a difficult list to compile, with many changes made throughout the selection process, but with the help of some experts in the field, we’ve managed to narrow it down to a select few.

And moving into this series, which will include the opinions of some top academics on the subject, I think it’s important to keep in mind what Timothy Iles, author of books on Japanese Cinema and a professor of Asian studies at the University of Victoria, told me as a bit of pre-cautionary advice:

’Plenty of scholars in the social sciences aim to use film to understand the world, when instead they should be using the world to understand the film. It's very easy, very tempting, to point to the (scripted, plotted) behaviour and say "See? Japan is just like that!"’

Surely, in watching Japanese films, we risk misunderstanding the complex and diverse true nature of the country, if we simply use them as tools to form our impressions of the real world. Rather, it’s probably best to approach any such art work from any region as, according to Timothy, ‘a very eloquent comment on the world, a critique, a reflection, even a celebration.’


Illustration by Devon Doss.